Pixar’s fourth feature film, Monsters Inc., is yet another very creative concept from the CGI animation powerhouse studio. Although I never felt this fear myself, a common fear amongst children is that a monster lives in the closet. This movie plays on that childhood fear by turning it into a major plot point. There’s another place (the movie doesn’t specify whether it’s another planet or another dimension), where monsters live. They have a network of teleporting doors that lead directly into children’s closets, which they use to frighten the children and make them scream. And yet the ironic thing is, the monsters are terrified of children. They falsely believe that children are toxic to the touch for them, to the point where when one human child finds their way into the monster world, it causes a widespread panic.
So why do they bother? Because children’s screams are how they get their power.
Let’s not worry about the question of how they powered the first doors to get into children’s closets, how they discovered that screams can become electricity in the first place or why they never figured out a more reliable way to generate electricity. As fascinating as those questions are, that’s not the point of the movie. The real point of the movie is the charming, heartfelt relationship that develops between Sully (the lead monster character) and Boo (Mary), a little girl who finds Sully a lot more amusing than she finds him scary.
The idea for Monsters Inc. originated during a lunch break in 1994 attended by John Lasseter and Pete Docter, among a couple others. Docter, who would end up as the film’s director, said of his idea, “When we were making Toy Story, everybody came up to me and said ‘Hey, I totally believed that my toys came to life when I left the room.’ So when Disney asked us to do more films, I wanted to tap into a childlike notion that was similar to that. I knew monsters were coming out of my closet when I was a kid. So I said ‘Hey, let’s do a film about monsters.’”
Docter began work on Monsters Inc. in 1996, while others focused on A Bug’s Life and Toy Story 2. He pitched a rough story treatment to Disney in February of 1997, left with suggestions for improving the story, and returned with a refined version in May. At the pitch meeting, long-time Disney animator Joe Grant (whose work went as far back as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937) suggested the title Monsters Inc. The movie would also end up being the first Pixar movie not directed by Lasseter.
Early in the movie’s main production (early 2000), Pixar moved to a much needed larger studio. Up to that point, they had 3 buildings, one divided from the other two by a busy highway. Monsters Inc. would also be the first Pixar movie where each major character had its own lead animator. They decided that John Goodman’s bear-like voice worked well for a furry design, although Sully’s furry body provided them with some challenges. Traditionally, animators would give hair slow movements, but they worried that with Sully being the main character, it would make him look sluggish. They envisioned him more like a football player; big, but capable of moving quickly. They also hired an extra team of technicians to work specifically on Sully’s hair.
Another challenge they faced in the animation was cloth to cloth collisions, which they wanted to help make Boo’s clothing move realistically. Both of these complications were solved with a fur simulation program called Fizt (short for physics tool). Every time Sully moved, Fizt would help his fur move naturally. Fizt also controlled the movements in Boo’s clothes. Pixar considered the program a breakthrough. It still added more problems, like clothing getting overly wrinkled. In the end, the processing power needed to handle these complications required 3500 Sun Microsystems processors, compared to the 1400 for Toy Story 2 and only 200 for Toy Story.
Despite these challenges, Monsters Inc. went through a much smoother production cycle than the near disaster that was Toy Story 2. It was also very successful, both financially and critically. It ranked number 1 at the box office on its first two weekends, with a much smaller drop-off than normal at 27.2% (most movies drop closer to 50% from their first to second weekend). It earned a total of $577 million on a $115 million budget. At the time being, Monsters Inc. became the second highest grossing animated feature of all-time, only behind The Lion King.
It received a 92% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes with an average score of 8/10. It won the Academy Award for Best Original Song (“If I Didn’t Have You”), Randy Newman’s very first Oscar after having 15 previous nominations. It was about time really. Monsters Inc. also received a nomination for Best Original Score (lost to Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring) and was among the nominees for the first ever Best Animated Feature Oscar (lost to Shrek). I fully agree that Lord of the Rings does have the better soundtrack, although Shrek being better than Monsters Inc. is debatable (that’s not a knock against Shrek by the way).
It’s worth noting that there are a lot of big stars in the vocal cast. I already mentioned John Goodman portraying Sully, the lead character. He shows a lot of range in his role, like a bit of a sarcastic attitude for most of the movie’s intro, showing genuine compassion with Boo, and sheer determination towards the end of the movie. Billy Crystal plays Mike Wazowski, Sully’s best friend and assistant at the scream factory. He’s a very funny character, without taking away from the movie’s drama. Steve Buscemi plays Randall, Sully’s main rival at the factory who ends up being the villain. He’s somewhere between creepy, aggressive and sarcastic, and it’s a great performance. There’s also Jennifer Tilly, Frank Oz, John Ratzenberger (who’s appeared in every Pixar movie to date) and James Coburn in one of his final roles (only Snow Dogs and American Gun released after Monsters Inc.).
Personally, I really like this movie. I didn’t think I would like it at first, having released in 2001 when I was in the middle of trying to grow up too fast. But I remember watching it at my cousin’s house during a family party, and really enjoying it despite my doubts. The movie’s opening moments show off a lot of the creativity in this monster occupied city, and there are a lot of great jokes. There’s a sense of tension between Sully and Randall from the very start that only intensifies as the movie goes on. There are a couple good plot twists in the second act. The struggles that Sully and Mike face in relation to the kid really put their friendship to the test, but by the end they grow closer as a result. And the uncle/niece type relationship between Sully and Boo is not only fun, but heartwarming. When they’re seemingly separated forever, it’s hard not to tear up.
The visuals also hold up fairly well. Even though hair physics would be massively improved with the Dynamic Wires program for movies like Bolt, Tangled and Zootopia, they work perfectly fine here. The climactic door sequence at the end of the movie showcases what is by far the most elaborate CGI environment created in any medium up to that point. And the art design and colouring behind the technical advancements is creative and just fun to look at. If the concept of Monsters Inc. interests you, it’s likely that you’ll enjoy it.
The movie would eventually spawn a prequel, Monsters University, which I haven’t seen yet. It’s also spawned several video games, attractions in multiple Disney theme parks, and a 4-issue comic series. There’s also talks of a spin-off show that may be a part of Disney’s own streaming platform, following their coming 2019 exit from Netflix.
Next up is Finding Nemo, followed by The Incredibles and Cars. The next two movies are also great in their own way. Cars, well … I’m not really a fan, but I don’t dislike it and know people who do. I really like the four movies that follow Cars though – in fact two of those will likely make my top 5 Pixar movies when I get to my list. But I’m getting ahead of myself.